When Writing Tips Become Platitudes

I am a scribbler.  I love writing but, I confess, I seldom read articles or blogs about writing.  Barring the usual exceptions, of course, I confess I find reading about writing tedious. I would far rather read a story than a piece on how to write a story.  Just like I love food but food programmes on television generally bore me.  For me, writing should come out in ready-made form, like a woman’s make up.  I do not want to see her applying it in public.  I am not particularly interested in the process – just in the finished product.

That is why I will keep this short.

As a writer, I have, over the years, heard large quantities of feedback on my first drafts of plays and fiction, and those of other people’s work in progress.

Here is the kind of feedback I find invaluably useful:

No. 1 Does the reader believe it?

No. 2 Is the reader confused?

No. 3 Is the reader enjoying it?

No. 4 Are there any typos or grammatical errors?

No. 5 Does the reader relate to the characters?

No. 6 Is it too long?

No. 7 Does the reader want more?

(I would argue that one could scrap the first six, and just keep this one.)

Then, there is feedback which makes me want to kick off my shoes and run around barefoot on a Cambridge College lawn, in the snow, shrieking.

No. 1Show, don’t tell.”

I agree but to a point.  There are pages and pages of sumptuous telling in Isabel Allende and Dacia Maraini’s novels.

No. 2 “Have you read this other [famous] writer who also writes on the same subject?”

Are we encouraged to imitate other writers, now?

No.3 “I think you should have the courage to make it dark.

I happen to think it takes courage to make it light.

No. 4 “I don’t know anything about this topic, and I’m afraid it’s not really my favourite genre, so I am really not qualified to comment.  However,…  [there follows an interminable and, generally, inappropriate critique.]

Just stop speaking at the end of “… not qualified to comment.”  Nope.  That’s all.

No. 5 “I think you should change word A for word B, and replace word X with word Y…”

So you want me to write like you, now?

No. 6 “You know, I can see your character as a woman instead of a man, and from the South instead of the North.  Also, instead of a librarian, I think you should make her a secret agent…”

Er… Brilliant.  Use it for your book.

No. 7 “It’s great.  I love it.  Instead of a novel, you could turn it into a screenplay.  Also, why don’t you set the whole thing in a a different country?”

Just so we’re clear.  I have made a tea mug.  I am asking you if you like my mug.  Yes, I am aware that I could add a spout, glue on a handle, top it with a lid, and that it would make a sweet little teapot.  BUT IT’S A MUG.  So please assess it as a MUG.


Scribe Doll

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26 Responses to When Writing Tips Become Platitudes

  1. maiacaron says:

    Great post and illustrates why I don’t let friends read and comment on my writing. Only paid editors and other writers know the proper critique elements and how to use them. I’ve found that letting my friends read, shows me sides of them I never knew or wanted to, for that matter!

    • scribedoll says:

      Thank you for reading and commenting. Actually, I must confess that the comments I list in the post are inspired by those I received from and heard others receive from other writers. In my experience, writers read a piece with a focus to finding flaws, whereas non-writers read the book and allow the flaws to leap out at them without deliberately seeking them out – which is, I believe, how the majority of people approach a book.

  2. Rupert says:

    Have I heard a few of these at our evenings at the BAC? I dare say that I have been guilty myself. There is that temptation when listening to the writers read out their work, to re-imagine that story, and in some way, make it our own. We are all thieves, all guilty of stealing ideas that float like wisps in the air, and in that moment, yes, we, in our enthusiasm can make some inappropriate suggestions that will not fit in with your vision. But I do think that these are all made with love. You have got our interest, you have attracted our attention. So maybe, these comments are back-handed compliments? What they are really saying is ‘I wish I had written that!’

  3. denizsezgun says:

    There are people who love shaping, forming new or self styled things into popular well known things. I find those “how to write a good blog” compositions just too raw, too spoiled.

    How to play an instrument or how to read and play the notes can be technically taught, but music can simply not. So is writing!

    Good that some of us will never be the victims of pupulist culture and its fruits 🙂

  4. Spot on and I think your point #7 – does the reader want more – is the clincher. Great blog.

  5. Ha, ha, such a funny depiction- the plague of the well-meaning. Even worse are the novels flooding the market engendered by expert advice. The newest – how to write a book in 30 days, see last Saturday’s Guardian.

  6. This post really made me think!
    I’m glad you like my latest post. If you can spare the time I think you’d like an earlier post http://suesconsideredtrifles.wordpress.com/2012/09/12/can-we-agree-to-differ-speaking-terms-part-5/

  7. simon roberts says:

    Many years ago, I was in talks with an acquaintance from university ( note that I’m distancing myself from this person by referring to him as an ‘acquaintance’ ) over reviving a play I’d written and which had had some minor success. He had actually rewritten some parts of it – no consultation, no ‘Why not…?’ – and wanted the two male straight characters to be lesbian women. He’d also included a scene which involved the construction of a wall to symbolise…I’ve no idea, I’ve blotted it out. The revival, mercifully, never went ahead.

  8. Liz Stanford says:

    Love your comments – but perhaps you should consider writing as a man, or in a different language or perhaps you’d like to read my friend’s blog which is really good. ( only joking!!!! Just thought it might make you go “grrrr” again!!)
    Keep writing – your friends and followers love your pieces! Sunday would be a poorer day were it not for this little beacon of light each week. Liz

  9. Rob Lightfoot says:

    This made me chuckle when the rest of my brain was in thrall to long term curriculum plans. Thank you!

  10. mgm75 says:

    Haha, thanks for making me chuckle this Sunday afternoon.

  11. Very witty series of points, well-made, funny!

  12. Sue Cumisky says:

    Aha! Must watch the criticism and make it original. Banality merely annoys, oh how I agree. A good editor is not lazy.

  13. Anna says:

    Brilliant. As everything that you write!

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